Last updated Jun 2020
The guide to mastering online brainstorming
Iris Latour,
Customer Insights Manager at Miro
Hailing from the design world, Iris has written articles and facilitated workshops at conferences on design thinking, business design, culture design, and the creative ideation process.

10 Advanced Tips For Better Brainstorms

There are two kinds of brainstorming sessions in the world: The kind that leaves you energized and inspired, and the kind that leaves you drained, feeling like you came away with more questions than answers. We’ve all been there, but it doesn’t have to be like that! Group brainstorming is beneficial to your work place for myriad reasons. Not only will a successful brainstorm produce a solution to a problem, but you’ll remind people how creative they and their teammates can be. Ready to get started? Keep reading to get some advanced ideas and tips to help you ideate like a pro.

Rules to start with

The first thing to remember when thinking about an engaging brainstorm is the original rules laid out by the father of brainstorming, Alex F. Osborn:

  • Create a safe space. A judgement-free environment where criticism is withheld is important to prevent alienation and inspire creative thinking.

  • Quantity over quality. More is better. Don’t worry about the quality of the idea—just get as many of them out there as possible!

  • Embrace crazy ideas. Alex Osborn said, "It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one." So, basically, the wilder the better.

  • Combine and improve ideas. This is why brainstorming is often connected with improv—it’s all about “yes, and” not “no, but.”

Getting better brainstorming ideas

Need more idea generation juice? There are ways that you can take the tenets of Alex’s original philosophy and create more structure (which means more output!) to your next session. Here are 10 tips to inspire and energize your team for your best brainstorm ever.

1. Start with icebreakers or warm ups

Carving out space for an icebreaker exercise at the beginning of a brainstorming session sets the tone, encourages mingling, and brings the group together around a common or shared experience. Not only that but they will boost energy and positive vibes in the room (it’s contagious, you know)! and promote team building.

2. Get creative juices flowing with improv games

Letting your guard down (like singing karaoke with coworkers) is an effective way to bond with others. Using tried-and-true improv techniques helps teammates loosen up, warm up and immediately break down barriers. Here are some examples to get you started:

  • One-minute life stories. In pairs, each person has one minute to tell their life story. The other person listens and then has to repeat back as much as they remember. This promotes active listening (something we all can benefit from).

  • Two truths and a lie. This is a good one and everyone knows how to play it. The zanier the truths the more likely you are to stump your colleagues.

  • Yes, And. Play out a scene or conversation with the group where every line starts with the words “yes, and.”

  • Virtual sketch session. Using your shared team Miro board, quickly sketch a picture of your workspace, your pet or even an original emoji for how you’re feeling that day. Then, share what you’ve drawn with your team.

3. Map out – don’t throw out – bad ideas

One of the biggest roadblocks to free thinking is the anxiety that comes with feeling that your ideas will be dismissed as “dumb” by your coworkers or boss. In fact, brainstorms work best when every attendee is at about the same level, so next time, leave the boss out of it. You can loop them back in when it feels right, but for now they’re on a need-to-know basis. Use the beginning of a brainstorm to come up with as many “bad” ideas as you can. Not only will this generate a few laughs but it will spur positive energy and keep productivity high.

"It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one." – Alex Osborn

4. Keep the group small (and mighty)

The two secret ingredients to a highly effective brainstorm are equal parts first-hand experience and group size. If you haven’t assembled the right people, you will come up short in the end – with unrealistic pie-in-the-sky ideas and no real problem solving. The key? Work with a diverse group of individuals who all have on-the-ground knowledge of the problem you’re trying to attack.

The sweet spot for the ideal number of participants? It’s around seven, according to Harvard Business Review. Too few, and you might find yourself in the idea doldrums, too many and the number of ideas also starts to plateau.

5. Consider a change of scenery

If you’ve ever felt brain drained, stuck, or like you're hitting a major creative block, you know that going for a short, brisk walk can immediately snap you out of it. Your environment is very important to creative thinking, which is why a “creative space” full of inspiring images, art, and plenty of space (either physical or digital) for whiteboards, sticky notes, and mood boards is important. Studies have found that enriched environments can contribute to the speed at which humans create new neurons. If that doesn’t make you want to get out of the office and into a new space, we don’t know what will!

6. Do heads-down ideation to avoid groupthink

Groupthink is an easy trap to fall into when you’re brainstorming. It occurs when a group of people make ill-informed decisions spurred by the urge to conform. It’s a known creativity killer and is almost impossible to combat once it seeps into the fabric of a brainstorm.

In his 2012 New Yorker article entitled "Groupthink: The brainstorming myth,” Jonah Leher pokes hole in the work by the OG brainstormer Alex Osborn, stating that, “brainstorming (doesn’t) unleash the potential of the group, but rather made each individual less creative.” But there’s a solution to this. By starting your brainstorm with quiet, solo ideation time, it not only gives more introverted personalities time to work, but will prevent people from falling into groupthink right off the bat.

Here’s how to structure a brainstorm with heads-down time:

  • Start with a quick 3-5 minute icebreaker.

  • Give the team structure with goals for the brainstorm.

  • Spend 15-20 minutes of “heads down” time for individual thinking.

  • Have each participant present their ideas to the group.

  • Carry out a silent dot vote to identify the top ideas.

7. Get curious with questions

Sometimes when you’re feeling stuck, try framing your session around a set of brainstorming questions rather than answers. Often called a “question burst,” one Harvard study suggests that this methodology enables everyone to feel safe and stomps out groupthink and the social anxiety that comes along with assumed judgement. By asking questions rather than providing answers to a problem, participants can discover new, unseen pathways towards a collective solution.

Wondering what questions to ask? Read: Kickstart ideation with 5 types of brainstorming questions

8. Create a mood board or collage

If you’re a visual learner, chances are the development of an online mood board will spark inspiration and help you explain your ideas more clearly. A mood board is just an old-school-style collage made up of colors, images, typography and textures to spark creativity and drum up emotions. Here’s how to create one virtually using CTRL-P and a shared Miro board.

  • Set an intention. What is your goal for this? What problem are you trying to solve? As the brainstorming facilitator, are you setting a tone for mood or the session? Write it down on your board to get started.

  • Collect visuals. Think: tech, design, architecture, art, typography, photography; writing you like, branding you like, competitors who are solving problems in interesting ways, etc. Drag and drop all your inspiration into your board.

  • Add color. Do certain colors make you feel some kind of way? Add them in! Share out with your team. Don’t be afraid to share the board, delegate prepwork or just poll your participants as to how they’d like to structure the brainstorm.

9. Consider sub-groupings or break-out sessions

If your brainstorm is being dominated by a few outspoken individuals, it might be time to consider breaking out into smaller groups. Assign each smaller group (3-5 people) one question (and one question only!) that they will spend the next 10-20 minutes brainstorming on their own. Smaller groups are set up for success because they’ll be forced to speak up (lest they languish in awkward silence), whereas in larger settings quieter introverts can slide under the radar without contributing ideas.

10. Don't forget to wrap up your session

Shortly before your brainstorm is set to adjourn, participants should spend some time discussing their favorite ideas from the session. Whether that's by silently voting on the best ideas or by merging ideas with similar ones to map out themes, the end of any brainstorm should feel like the culmination of a lot of hard work, team effort, and good vibes. Once things have wrapped up, the facilitator of the brainstorm (i.e. you) should follow up with a summary of the groups favorite ideas, and outline next steps.

Looking to generate ideas remotely? Try Miro's inspiring — and totally free – online brainstorming tool.

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